Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur

November 10, 2000

Well, we’re still in an odd Presidential limbo here in the U.S. We don’t actually need to know who the new President is until early next year, and we don’t officially know the winner until the Electoral College votes, but we generally have a good idea who won the day after the election.

Not this year.

Dave Winer has put together a good collection of links relating to this mess, and rather than recreate his work, I’ll just link to his Wednesday and Thursday entries. Other highlights include the international reaction to the (lack of) election results: bafflement. People are also confused internationally by the Electoral College (much like we are). More on that later.

Ballot Usability

In yet another bizarre twist, people in Palm Beach are complaining that the ballot was confusing, thereby causing them to accidently vote for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore.

The usability crowd is already discussing this, with Dan Bricklin and Joel Spolsky agreeing that the design pretty much sucked. Jakob Nielson also feels the design was poor, but doesn’t “want to pass any judgment as to whether this usability problem cost Al Gore the Presidency because there were so many other usability problems in other states that might have influenced the count there.” He had previously discussed the usability of the voting booths in New York, which have their own, less serious problems.

In Chatham, we have new electronic voting booths with touch-sensitive buttons that light up to indicate who you voted for. Much better design.

The question, then, is whether this confusion influenced how people vote. A graph of the voting patterns by county shows one highly-noticable outlier: Palm Beach, where Mr Buchanan received 2500 more votes than the ratio of Bush to Buchanan votes elsewhere would suggest. Furthermore, 19,120 ballots in that county were disqualified because more than one candidate was selected, possibly after people realised they had chosen the wrong one. Compare with only 3783 mistakes in the senate ballots in that same county. John Marden notes that it would be interesting to see which two candidates were chosen on those invalid ballots.

This is obviously a delicate situation. With the margins this close, the fact that Florida’s Governor is George Bush’s brother means that the conspiracy theorists are already at work. The ballot design itself, as the Republicans are fond of pointing out, was approved by a Democrat, but being a Democrat does not automatically make one competant in judging usability. Other aspects, like the lost ballots and Mr Bush’s prediction that Mr Gore’s seeming victory in Florida might not pan out, give the impression that something is up, unlikely as that may be. Some have even suggested that the situation be internationally supervised, although that would activate a whole different set of conspiracy theorists.

The Electoral College

None of this would matter if it weren’t for the Electoral College. No matter how these problems in Florida work out, they aren’t enough to cancel Mr Gore’s 200,000-vote lead (roughly 0.2%). However, the actual decision will be made by the Electoral College, where Mr Bush currently has the lead. The States send Electors to the college based on citeria they select themselves; I’m not sure whether they’re even required to have a popular vote, although precedent is strongly in that direction. There’s a good explanation by Roger Cossack at CNN:

The reason we have an Electoral College is that the founding fathers thought there would be several candidates for president and that the Electoral College would narrow the field to two or three. Then the House would make the decision. But the party system made the Electoral College a rubber stamp and the process simply didn’t work out the way the founding fathers thought it would.

I don’t dispute that this election should be decided by the Electoral College—those were the rules when the campaign started and it wouldn’t be resonable to change them now—but I am not convinced that we need to keep it around any longer. The arguments in favor of the College usually say that direct voting would “encourage regionalism, that candidates would pander to those areas with the greatest population centers and that rural areas would be overlooked”, as Mr Cossack puts it.

I absolutely fail to understand that argument. Is the implication that our current system is not regional? If a candidate could, through campaigning in a state, raise his proportion of the votes in that state to 30% from 5%, would it be worth it to try? Not under our current system. Is the implication that larger groups shouldn’t have more influence than smaller groups? What kind of democracy is that? And again, how is that not seen in our current system?

My problem with the Electoral College system is that it is fundamentally unfair. States are allotted electoral votes according to their population, not the number of people who actually vote. It’s not proportional, either: Wyoming has 160,000 people per electoral vote while Texas has 626,000. That means a vote in Wyoming is worth 3.9 in Texas. How is this representative?

I say junk it. It’s confusing, slow, and non-representative. Two hundred years ago, the states were important entities with great influence over the country’s policy. No more. The people already elect Senators directly, why not the President?